Mar 25, 2013, 5:09 PM EDT
Notre Dame advanced into the second round of the Tournament Sunday night by beating the 16 seed Tennessee Martin. The Irish’s reward will be essentially a road game against the hometown favorite and 9 seed Iowa Hawkeyes tomorrow night.
This morning, head coach Muffett McGraw and players Natalie Achonwa and Jewell Loyd met with the media for their scheduled press conference. Without further ado, let’s review what was covered:
First the players…
Loyd on maintaining focus in the post season: The team feels like it’s very well prepared and coached so the trick is to treat each game as if it’s just like any other.
Achonwa on the challenges of a quick-turn game essentially on the road: Mental focus is key. The coaches do a great job of scouting opponents, and having a day off in between games is helpful for the team to recharge. The team understands that Iowa will be the heavy crowd-favorite in the next game so the challenge for Notre Dame will be to approach it like any other road game. (The Irish are undefeated on the road in 2012-13, you may recall).
Achonwa on the specific challenges that Iowa presents: They are a very smart team with good outside shooters and a strong post presence who also plays great team defense.
Loyd on rooting for the underdog or the Cinderella team: Jewell’s response here was interesting because she didn’t really address the specific question, rather she pointed out that as a basketball fan you always want to see “a good game.”
Achonwa on Iowa’s Johnson and Doolittle: They’re both tall, lean players who work well together. The Irish plan to play physical and Natalie expects the game to be decided by which team better out-thinks the other.
Loyd on how Iowa compares to Tennessee-Martin: It’s not really about the specific team or the specific match-ups for the Irish. Rather it’s about understanding and committing to their own principles and playing their game the way the coaches have instructed, especially on Defense.
Achonwa on staying sharp for late games (Tuesday’s game will tip-off at 9:45 pm eastern): It’s always a long day when you play at night but Notre Dame’s national television presence is an advantage here as they have direct experience playing late on Big Monday throughout the season. Playing late is not something to which the Irish are unaccustomed, though she did mention that it’s important to go into the game neither too tense or too relaxed. (I’ve noticed that this team emphasizes mental focus a lot).
Loyd on defense: It will be important to keep an eye on Iowa’s shooters, especially in transition.
Achonwa on becoming a 1,000 point scorer for the Irish: It’s an honor, but she wasn’t even aware that she was that close to the milestone until she was told about it after the game. The focus for her is all about Iowa.
Loyd on offensive balance: The key for the Irish is to be unselfish and move the ball, staying true to the game plan. Offensive balance will take care of itself at that point.
…and then the Coach…
McGraw on parity in the women’s game: There’s clearly more parity in the men’s game, but on a neutral court, anything can happen in the women’s game.
…on building a program: The Irish have been no stranger to the tournament in the last 20 years, but McGraw feels like the perceived elevation to “elite” status for the program only came with getting to the Final Four.
…on elite players: “They have to be better.” McGraw then went on to say that recruiting elite talent is the life blood of an elite program. That it’s a 24/7, year round job and that in order to maintain an elite program level there has to be new elite talent every year. She then said that chemistry is almost as important as elite skills. That a player with great raw talent who doesn’t fit in well with the team won’t have success at Notre Dame or help Notre Dame have success on an elite level. She looks for a balance between elite skills and chemistry in order to target the players Notre Dame will recruit.
…on her evaluation of the team’s performance against Tennessee-Martin: Notre Dame played a very good offensive game (they scored 97 points, one shy of the Notre Dame tournament record). This was especially heartening when you consider that the team was coming off an 11 day lay-off going into the game. McGraw had expected that the team may be rusty after such a delay but was pleasantly surprised by the offensive performance. She also had good things to say about the defensive performance in the game, despite Heather Butler’s 37 points, the Irish absolutely shut down the other four Skyhawks on the floor and held UT-Martin to 64 total points, slightly higher than ND’s season scoring defense average of just under 58 points a game.
…on Des Moines, Iowa native Markisha Wright: She plays a big role for the irish specifically in spelling Natalie Achonwa, playing a lot of quality minutes. A steady presence who works very hard and wants to improve as a player. McGraw says that Wright “is the best screener” on the team and that the guards love playing with her on the floor because of the quality of the screens she sets.
…on the challenge of maintaining an elite program versus building one: McGraw pointed out that it took the Irish awhile to get back to Final Four level after their championship in 2001, that it’s difficult to achieve elite status and difficult to keep a program there. She pointed out that seeing teams go into Storrs or Knoxville and knock off Connecticut and Tennessee at home is evidence of the development of the women’s program and it shows that more and more teams are competing for elite status. She went on to say that the Irish’s impending move to the ACC should be great for the program and hopefully Notre Dame would be great for the ACC as well. The ACC, McGraw feels, has the potential to become the premier Women’s Basketball conference in the country.
…on the development of her team from 2011-12 to 2012-13: The Irish lost three starters in 2012 and a had a lot to replace, a task that McGraw said the coaching staff started to discuss right after the Championship Game last season. Natalie Achonwa’s development has been huge for the Irish. The coaching staff knew that they had a special player in Kayla McBride, but she’s surpassed even the coach’s expectations with what McGraw characterized as an All-American type season. She spoke a bit about the freshman class, and how generally you can’t predict how a freshman will adjust to the college game but that Jewell Loyd’s development was key to the continued success the Irish have experienced in 2012-13. She went on to discuss sophomore Madison Cable’s performance coming back from an injury shortened freshman season and freshman Michaela Mabrey off the bench, and concluded with a discussion of Ariel Braker’s emergences as a starter helping to fill the void left by Devereaux Peters.
…on if it will take another generation for the Women’s game to get to the level of the Men’s game: McGraw says there are fewer immediate game changers in the Women’s game. Players who can come in and make a difference right away, so yes…it likely will take another generation for the two games to converge.
…on playing a road game in the second round: The team is already road tested, and have performed well all season on the road. They know the crowd will be against them, but still hoping for Iowa irish fans to come out and support the team.
…on the matchup with Iowa: McGraw mentions Iowa’s Samantha Logic as having her best game of the season against the Hurricanes on Sunday. Also talked a bit about Jaime Printy and Melissa Dixon as strong outside shooters.
…on what Skylar Diggins has meant to the women’s game: Skylar is the face of women’s basketball. She attracts new, casual fans to the game and she’s done great things for the game. She even gets cheers from opposing fans from time to time. McGraw went on to say that whatever WNBA team drafts Skylar is going “hit the jackpot” in terms of landing a truly elite player, but also a superstar personality who can widen the appeal of a team’s brand.
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